No one needs to remind Sandi Smith to look on the bright side. When the Tennessee native lost her job three years ago at age 59, she saw the major life change as an opportunity.
Smith joined forces with her good friend Betty Crawford, who owned a specialty dog treat store, and the two women founded 4 Paws Pantry, a nonprofit organization that temporarily provides pet food to families in need. This vital service often allows cats and dogs to remain in their homes instead of being surrendered to shelters.
For Crawford, running her own pet food pantry was a dream nearly a decade in the making.
“Betty had seen this on CNN 10 years earlier,” Smith said. “She was a retired schoolteacher, and this was her other life. When I lost my job, Betty told me, ‘The stars are aligned; let’s do this.’ And I said okay.”
Last year, 4 Paws Pantry, which serves Hamilton County, Tennessee, gave out 3,600 pounds of dry food, as well as a significant amount of wet food. As a result, it saved 90 dogs and 20 cats from going to shelters. In the first quarter of 2015, it distributed 1,388 pounds of dry food, helping 55 dogs, 38 cats, and 7 kittens remain in their homes.
“Two weeks ago, a shelter had someone who was going to surrender two dogs, and they called us,” Smith says. “The dad said, ‘You don’t know how happy this makes my children, that we don’t have to give up our dogs.’ We had somebody else who sent us a really nice thank you on Facebook and said their three dogs did not have to be rehomed because of us. That’s what we’re all about.”
While pet food banks are not new, Smith says 4 Paws Pantry is unusual because of its organization and oversight. The pantry has a brick-and-mortar location and a board of directors, as well as a detailed application process requiring proof of residence in Hamilton County, which ensures the group’s resources won’t be spread too thin.
While visiting other food banks during the planning process, Smith and Crawford learned why applications were important to their business model.
“I had one lady tell me she was open only two hours a week, and when she gets food she just goes to a neighborhood and hands it out,” Smith says. “There was another lady who said she just operates out of her garage. You don’t know if the animals who need it are getting it.”
Perhaps the most vital part of the application: Every animal receiving assistance must be spayed or neutered. To prove pets have been altered, Smith says many people either bring the animals with them or have Smith call the vet who performed the surgery. 4 Paws Pantry will not provide assistance to families whose animals have not been spayed or neutered, but it will refer pet owners to resources within the community that will do the procedure for free or cheap.
“That’s our rule that we will not budge on at all,” Smith says. “It’s very important. In the South, there’s this mindset about not spaying and neutering. A lot of it is a male issue — we don’t want to do anything because it’s natural for them to breed. People have got to get out of that mindset. There are too many animals. We’d like to cut down on the euthanasia rate.”
If all application requirements are met, 4 Paws Pantry will provide assistance for a maximum of six months, determining how much food each pet receives according to predetermined guidelines based on weight and breed. Smith says most families require pet food for only a month or two while they’re between jobs or dealing with an unexpected expense.
For everyone who receives assistance, Smith has one very important question: “How can you give back?”
“Sometimes it’s volunteering — we have an event coming up this weekend, and several people we’ve helped in the past are coming to volunteer their time,” Smith says. “We’ve had some who have brought us a bag of food or two dollars and said, ‘That’s all I can give you.’ Well, we don’t care. It’s all about — we’ll help you, then you help us help others.”
Despite all the progress 4 Paws Pantry has made in a little more than a year, Smith says she sees the group doing a lot more. Going forward, she hopes to start a grassroots movement that will inspire others to start pet food banks, “because it’s not rocket science, and it doesn’t take a lot to do it other than time.”
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About Angela: This not-crazy-at-all cat lady loves to lint-roll her favorite dress and go out dancing. She also frequents the gym, the vegan coffee joint, and the warm patch of sunlight on the living room floor. She enjoys a good cat rescue story about kindness and decency overcoming the odds, and she’s an enthusiastic recipient of headbutts and purrs from her two cats, Bubba Lee Kinsey and Phoenix.